Making Meaning Through Memory: A Museums Role in the Coronavirus Pandemic

Author: Maja Lynn

You might expect a Holocaust center to be a solemn, distressing space. However, while the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh takes its subject matter very seriously, it is quite the opposite. 

As an intern, I got a sense that although the space was small and the atmosphere was light-hearted, the Center’s projects and ambitions reached far beyond the walls of the building. Even while routine tasks, like keyword tagging books for the online database, there were moments when a name or a story would touch me and remind me of why what I was doing was important.

The Center serves an important role in the Pittsburgh Jewish community. They hold events that educate and connect people in the memorialization of the Holocaust. They give Holocaust survivors and their families a platform to share their story if and when they wish. In fact, the team working at the Center all showed me that with a lot of hard work, museums can be warm and inviting spaces that people can turn to in times of crisis. 

Recently, the Center has had to step up and support the community in unforeseen ways. The team at the enter explained to me that after the Synagogue attack in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 people started walking into the Center simply looking for a place where they would be heard and understood. After going above and beyond to support people through this deeply traumatic experience, the Center has received international attention.

The last time I left the Center, I was preparing to go home for spring break with no idea of what was to come. When it became clear that I would not return to Pittsburgh because of the intensifying Coronavirus outbreak, I expected the Holocaust Center to shut down like museums across the country. Instead, I was impressed how the Center and other museums reached out to the community. In unprecedented times the Center, though just a small operation, has been able to organize free online workshops, vigils, panel discussions, and more. 

As the world has turned to online networks, organizations like the Anti-Defamation League have been warning that there has been a rise of hate crimes by white supremacists, who thrive in these online environments. Assaults on the Asian community have become more frequent, and more and more violent rhetoric is targeting other minority groups. The Holocaust Center, by refusing to let physical barriers stop them from making their educational programs accessible and by speaking out against this hatred, is making an impact.

In the last few years, I have spent time working in various roles focused on understanding the Holocaust and its connection with hatred and racism today. I have seen firsthand how resources like museums and archives can empower people through facts and information. The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh has shown me how, bolstered by the power of history, a museum can guide people through times of crisis. 

Maja Lynn, Museum Studies Intern at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, Spring 2020

Constellations Group